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Narrowing Your Thesis

Narrowing Your Thesis

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the importance of narrowing your thesis and strategies for doing so.

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Narrowing your Thesis

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll learn about narrowing your thesis, why it's important, and how to go about doing it.

One thing that most of the best essays in academic writing projects have in common is that they tackle a very specific thesis or controlling idea. The most effective academic arguments are built around a thesis that encompasses just enough for the essay or project to cover. And one of the common mistakes that beginning writers make, especially in composition classes, is choosing too broad an argument to try to make, given the restrictions on their time and the page or word allowance of the assignment. These essays that are made from too broad a thesis all have similar qualities in that they all try to go over too much information and do so in a general way, since they don't have either the time or the space to go into enough detail. There's too much to cover and the text is spread thin.

Of course, the opposite does happen sometimes. If a writer chooses too narrow a thesis, he or she can sometimes run out of material to work with. However, this is less common, especially with beginning writers. As often as not, when it seems like your argument scope is too narrow, more research will help provide a detailed and nuanced enough approach to your narrow topic. Still, let's look at a couple thesis statements and see if we could recognize one that's too broad and one that's too narrow.

Let's say that our assigned subject here is electronic communication, and we're supposed to come up with a persuasive essay about something within this very broad area, with a limit of four double spaced pages. So how about this thesis? "Talking to strangers and even friends online is becoming more and more common, but we're losing more than we're gaining." Does that sound like an argument you could effectively defend in just four pages? It's possible, but it would be a challenge.

Consider the wording, "talking to strangers and even friends online." This encompasses a whole lot of forms of communication, doesn't it? From email to anonymous chatting to online dating sites to Facebook and other social media outlets, and even comments on YouTube videos, all of this falls within this thesis' range and therefore all of this will need to be addressed at some point over the course of those four pages.

Now take a look at this thesis. This one is much more specific, but did it go too far? It's definitely narrowed in on a finite part of the overall subject, but chances are a writer trying to fill four pages defending this claim would have to resort to stretching language or even redundancy in order to get close to the page limit.

So how about something in the middle? If, for example, we were working with a thesis that states, "Paid online dating sites are changing the ways couples meet, and this has changed our understanding of what it means to 'date.' " This thesis is specific, focusing in on one particular aspect of a broader subject. And its claim, that online dating has changed our understanding of dating in general, is one that a writer could probably amount a good defensive of in just four pages. And that's the lesson to be taken from these examples, that a thesis, like every other step in the writing process, needs to conform to the rhetorical situation and the occasion for writing in order to create the strongest, most effective project it can.

Now that we're better suited to recognize when a thesis is too broad, or even to narrow, let's look at tactics for narrowing theses, ways experienced writers have found to ensure that their writing projects are as focused and effective as they want them to be. The most practical way is to ask questions. Asking who, what, when, where, and why questions about your thesis and your topic will help you gain insight into what lies behind a too broad thesis, and doing so will often reveal what exactly it is that you, the writer, really wants to write about.

Let's say for example, that your working thesis goes as follows, "America needs to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases, and there are many ways to do it." This is a broad thesis, one you'll most likely want to narrow down before beginning either the research or drafting steps of the writing process. So let's ask it some questions.

What exactly are you arguing, and who are we trying to convince? Why are we writing about this particular topic? Let's say you're writing this argument to your classmates and you want to convince them that they should also urge others to cut America's production of greenhouse gases, and you're doing so because you believe this would help improve all of our lives somewhere in the future.

Considering all that, perhaps you'd be better off making your argument more specific and shifting its focus a little. If you're trying to convince classmates to change something, how about this thesis instead. "Americans cause more carbon dioxide emissions than any other people on the planet, but there are five easy ways that you can reduce them." By moving the focus of the thesis from America in general to your intended audience, you're not only narrowing your thesis to something more manageable, you're engaging directly with your intended audience.

Another sometimes similar tactic that writers use to narrow their thesis is to take a moment to think critically about their occasion for writing. Including the rhetorical situation in which they write and the specific requirements of the writing assignment or prompt, how could their thesis be altered to better suit their needs? Let's look at the previous broad thesis again.

Now, how could a careful consideration of the occasion for writing help? In many ways, but let's say to follow this hypothetical occasion that the assignment, while having a broad topic-- anything about environmentalism-- did have the specific instruction to try to persuade its readers of something. Does the current working thesis fit this? Yes, but not very well. The only persuasion it allows for would be an argument that America should cut its emissions, which besides being a very broad argument to make, is also one you're not likely to need to argue, at least not to a bunch of college students, especially like your hypothetical classmates who, let's say, just finished reading a section of their book that was all about why greenhouse gas emissions are bad.

But could you find something within that broad claim-- that they're bad-- to argue? How about coal, for example? If you were to argue that electricity production through coal is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, but most states that produce coal have other alternatives, then you could more easily and more effectively write a persuasive argument about this topic to your audience.

The last tactic we'll cover concerns looking at the thesis question or questions that your thesis statement is answering. Identifying what kind of question it is, whether it's a question of fact, of preference, of definition, or interpretation or policy will help you understand not only what kind of argument you're trying to make, but hopefully what kind of argument you really want to make instead. In general, questions of fact and preference tend to be simple and are therefore more likely to involve thesis statements that are less interesting.

One strategy is to turn those kind of questions into questions of definition, interpretation, or policy instead, as this will often lead to a more specific answer and a more specific thesis. For example, our thesis that America needs to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases and there are many ways to do it is pretty clearly the answer to questions of fact. Does America need to cut its emissions? Yes. And how can this be done? Many ways.

If, however, we were to turn these questions into a question of, let's say, interpretation, it might go something like this. "While there are many ways America could cut its emissions of carbon dioxide, which ways would be best or most effective?" And a thesis that answers this question is almost guaranteed to be more specific, right.

How about this one, for example. The biggest threat to America's air is an easily solved problem-- stop burning coal. This thesis is specific and defendable, at least much more so than what we started with, right. So as you can see, there are many ways to narrow a thesis. Next time you're in need, try one or three and see where they take you.

What did we learn today? We learned about narrowing thesis statements, how to identify a thesis in need of a little more focus, and three different tactics for getting it there. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.